Friday, February 25, 2011

The Not-So-Secret Service

The latest issue of The Atlantic features an "unprecedented access" look into the Secret Service that, frankly, offers little in the way of revelation or insight--although it was fun to read that the New York office keeps a stash of disguises and fake grass for undercover operations. Presumably that's where they keep the ACME-brand rocket skates, too.

The piece centers around security coordination for the United Nations General Assembly meeting in 2010, and early on we get a glimpse into Iranian president Mahmoud Multisyllable's security detail:
During his stay, the Iranian president was ensconced in the smallish, 20-floor Hilton Manhattan East. The hotel remained open to regular guests, and tourists wandered freely through the lobby. No demonstrators were outside when I visited (a somewhat surprising absence, given that the day’s newspapers had disclosed the location of the hotel), but a couple dozen plainclothes police officers were stationed around the building just in case.
Just to be picky here, the newspapers didn't disclose the location of the hotel--Google Maps, or for that matter, the local Yellow Pages, will give you that. What the papers had disclosed was the location of Captain Windbreaker at said hotel.

Monday, February 21, 2011

And Then I Go and Spoil it All by Saying Something Stupid...

It might be churlish of me to say so, but while reading How to Write a Sentence...And How to Read One by the critic and columnist Stanley Fish, I can't help thinking that the book, as pleasantly pedantic as it is, might be more engaging if its sentences were written by someone more boisterously creative than Stanley Fish. It's a good book. I like it. But if it were written by, say, Martin Amis or, in an alternate universe, David Foster Wallace, I would probably love it. But there is no point blaming a book for its author.

I can, however, blame the author for this passage, where he compares "bad" sentences that create good effects to bad cover songs that produce ironic pleasure:
There's an NPR program called  The Annoying Music Show, and when the remastered set of Beatles albums came out in 2009, an episode was built around it. The cuts played included Tiny Tim singing "Hey Jude" and Telly (Kojak) Savalas singing "Something in the Way She Walks." These performances were truly bad and they were truly good.
The line, as George Harrison wrote it, is, of course, "Something in the way she moves." And the song, for that matter, is titled, simply, "Something".

I tried to find YouTube evidence of this cover song atrocity but came up dry. But in searching, I did come across this half-forgotten Telly Savalas sketch on the old Carol Burnett show. Cheesy, but still funny, if you ask me.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Death Be Not Proud

I've just retrieved the latest issue of MacLean's from the mailbox, which means I've just engaged in my weekly morbid ritual of flipping to the back page first to get right to the obituary profile of this week's unfortunate soul. First, I note the dates at the top and make the quick narcissistic calculation that Roz Chast so deftly captured in this cartoon:

Then, my eye shoots down to the last paragraph for the satisfyingly depressing details surrounding the circumstances of death. This week's profile ends thusly:
Last year, Peter survived a double-bypass surgery, and quickly recovered, eager to enjoy the summer. On Dec. 31, he retired. By mid-January, he and Lydia set off on another big adventure: a three-month road trip through the U.S., from California to Florida, which they had been planning for months. Four days in, on Jan. 19, 2011, they stopped on a Washington state highway so Peter could take a photo of a farmhouse. The sun was in his eyes, and he didn't see the truck that hit him. He was 66.
Damn. You spend decades building a life and this is how it ends--you stop for a bucolic Ansel Adams moment and end up a road pizza with a Peterbilt logo tattooed on your stunned face.

Anyway, I summoned the Google gods and found that the fully-capitalized designation, "Washington State," is indeed the preferred way to go here (although some cautioned against it if it could be confused with the university of that name). After all, we're talking about a highway in Washington State, not a state highway in what could be Washington, D.C.

As for why he was going from California to Florida by way of Washington State--alas, that's something we'll never get to ask poor Peter.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Greenhouse Blueberries, or Blue Berries in a Green House?

Want to know which organic foods are worth the extra shekels? Then you need to check out this iVillage slideshow, where you will find the following counsel on the advisability of buying blue-ribbon berries:
I only buy berries when they’re in season and sold at the farmer's market or at my local retailer. And I don’t do it to cut green house gases! I buy them in season, because they are much cheaper and so much better tasting.
Sound advice. Except that the difference between a "green house" and a "greenhouse" is worth bearing in mind, as we are reminded in this classic clip--which, coincidentally, is about berries:

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Dumb-Downed Theory of Hyphenation

According to the Hollywood Reporter (hey, I just happened to hit on it through a series of links; I don't have to explain myself to you) the word on the Beverly Hills street is that they're going to make a major motion picture adaption of Stephen King's post-apocalyptic epic, The Stand. I haven't read the novel, but I'm led to believe it is a post-apocalyptic epic worthy of major motion picture adaption. And apparently this isn't the first time the tale has been bound for the screen:
George Romero and Warners separately tried in vain to launch a movie adaptation in the 1980s, and a tone-downed version was produced as a six-hour miniseries by ABC in 1994. 
I'm sorry--a what version? Sure, you can make a case that a hyphenated compound should be treated as a single word for the purposes of past-tensifying--a "mutton-chopped" Civil War general, for instance--but "tone-downed" is an offense to the ear; it sounds like something a child who has been deprived of a Baby Einstein upbringing would say. "Toned-down version" would be the way to go. For that matter, I think you can even forgo the hyphen in this case and opt for the simple, austere "toned down version."

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Say That Again

I've added Charles Pierce's Idiot America to the bedtime reading rotation, because nothing is more conducive to restful slumber than having one's sputtering indignation aroused. As the inflammatory title suggests, it's about idiots--snake-oil-selling charlatans, conspiracy theorist nutjobs, young earth creationists, talk radio gasbags, Sarah Palin--and how they have infiltrated mainstream culture.

Pierce (you may remember him from such NPR panel shows as Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me) builds his thesis on what he calls the "Three Great Premises" of Idiot America, which are helpfully outlined on the back cover and referenced repeatedly throughout the book:
Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
Succinctly aphoristic, no doubt about that. But perhaps a trifle repetitive. The second premise, for instance talks about fact in the first sentence and truth in the second--but aren't all facts truthful, by virtue of their very factness? Still, it has a nice balance and cadence. The final premise, however, is really just a restatement of the previous sentence with slightly different flavoring.

It seems Pierce himself gets tangled up in the interchangeability of these ideas on Page 161, where he develops his "America as library" metaphor:
Idiot America is a strange, disordered place. Everything is on the wrong shelves. The truth of something is defined by how many people will attest to it, and facts are determined by those people's fervency.
If we go by the wording of the second great premise, the truth and the facts are transposed here. No matter, really, because it reads just as well this way. Which means that the two thoughts contained in the premise are pretty much describing a distinction without a difference. Again, no big crime and the premise as written has a pleasing musicality. I just expected the lyrics of the refrain to be consistent throughout the song.